Christian Anthropology

In the context of Christian theology, Christian anthropology is the study of the human (“anthropology“) as it relates to God. It differs from the social science of anthropology, which primarily deals with the comparative study of the physical and social characteristics of humanity across times and places.

One aspect studies the innate nature or constitution of the human, known as the nature of humankind. It is concerned with the relationship between notions such as body, soul and spirit which together form a person, based on their descriptions in the Bible. There are three traditional views of the human constitution – trichotomism, dichotomism and monism (in the sense of anthropology).

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Early Christian writers

Gregory of Nyssa

The reference source for Gregory’s anthropology is his treatise De opificio hominis. His concept of man is founded on the ontological distinction between the created and uncreated. Man is a material creation, and thus limited, but infinite in that his immortal soul has an indefinite capacity to grow closer to the divine. Gregory believed that the soul is created simultaneous to the creation of the body (in opposition to Origen, who speculated on the soul’s preexistence), and that embryos were thus persons. To Gregory, the human being is exceptional being created in the image of God. Humanity is theomorphic both in having self-awareness and free will, the latter which gives each individual existential power, because to Gregory, in disregarding God one negates one’s own existence. In the Song of Songs, Gregory metaphorically describes human lives as paintings created by apprentices to a master: the apprentices (the human wills) imitate their master’s work (the life of Christ) with beautiful colors (virtues), and thus man strives to be a reflection of Christ. Gregory, in stark contrast to most thinkers of his age, saw great beauty in the Fall: from Adam’s sin from two perfect humans would eventually arise myriad.

Augustine of Hippo

St. Augustine of Hippo

Augustine of Hippo was one of the first Christian ancient Latin authors with very clear anthropological vision. He saw the human being as a perfect unity of two substances: soul and body. He was much closer in this anthropological view to Aristotle than to Plato. In his late treatise On Care to Be Had for the Dead sec. 5 (420 AD) he insisted that the body pertains to the essence of the human person:

In no wise are the bodies themselves to be spurned. (…) For these pertain not to ornament or aid which is applied from without, but to the very nature of man.

Augustine’s favourite figure to describe body-soul unity is marriage: caro tua, coniunx tua – your body is your wife. Initially, the two elements were in perfect harmony. After the fall of humanity they are now experiencing dramatic combat between one another.

They are two categorically different things. The body is a three-dimensional object composed of the four elements, whereas the soul has no spatial dimensions. Soul is a kind of substance, participating in reason, fit for ruling the body. Augustine was not preoccupied, as Plato and Descartes were, with going too much into details in efforts to explain the metaphysics of the soul-body union. It sufficed for him to admit that they were metaphysically distinct. To be a human is to be a composite of soul and body, and that the soul is superior to the body. The latter statement is grounded in his hierarchical classification of things into those that merely exist, those that exist and live, and those that exist, live, and have intelligence or reason.

According to N. Blasquez, Augustine’s dualism of substances of the body and soul doesn’t stop him from seeing the unity of body and soul as a substance itself. Following ancient philosophers he defined man as a rational mortal animal – animal rationale mortale.

Terms or components

Body

Rudolf Bultmann states the following:

“That soma belongs inseparably, constitutively, to human existence is most clearly evident from the fact that Paul cannot conceive even of a future human existence after death, `when that which is perfect is come’ as an existence without soma – in contrast to the view of those in Corinth who deny the resurrection (1 Cor. 15, especially vv. 35ff.).”

“Man does not have a soma; he is a soma”

Soul

 
Nephesh (נֶ֫פֶשׁ nép̄eš) is a Biblical Hebrew word which occurs in the Hebrew Bible. The word refers to the aspects of sentience, and human beings and other animals are both described as having nephesh. Plants, as an example of live organisms, are not referred in the Bible as having nephesh. The term נפש is literally “soul”, although it is commonly rendered as “life” in English translations. One view is that nephesh relates to sentient being without the idea of life and that, rather than having a nephesh, a sentient creation of God is a nephesh. In Genesis 2:7 the text is that Adam was not given a nephesh but “became a living nephesh.” Nephesh when put with another word can detail aspects related to the concept of nephesh; with רוּחַ rûach (“spirit”) it describes a part of mankind that is immaterial, like one’s mind, emotions, will, intellect, personality, and conscience, as in Job 7:11.

The semantic domain of Biblical soul is based on the Hebrew word nepes, which presumably means “breath” or “breathing being”. This word never means an immortal soul or an incorporeal part of the human being that can survive death of the body as the spirit of dead. This word usually designates the person as a whole or its physical life. In the Septuagint nepes is mostly translated as psyche (ψυχή) and, exceptionally, in the Book of Joshua as empneon (ἔνμπεον), that is “breathing being”.

The New Testament follows the terminology of the Septuagint, and thus uses the word psyche in a manner performatively similar to that of the Hebrew semantic domain, that is, as an invisible power (or ever more, for Platonists, immortal and immaterial) that gives life and motion to the body and is responsible for its attributes.

In Patristic thought, towards the end of the 2nd century psyche was understood in more a Greek than a Hebrew way, and it was contrasted with the body. In the 3rd century, with the influence of Origen, there was the establishing of the doctrine of the inherent immortality of the soul and its divine nature. Origen also taught the transmigration of the souls and their preexistence, but these views were officially rejected in 553 in the Fifth Ecumenical Council. Inherent immortality of the soul was accepted among western and eastern theologians throughout the middle ages, and after the Reformation, as evidenced by the Westminster Confession.

On the other hand, a number of modern Protestant scholars have adopted views similar to conditional immortality, including Edward Fudge and Clark Pinnock; however the majority of adherents hold the traditional doctrine. In the last six decades, conditional immortality, or better “immortality by grace” (κατὰ χάριν ἀθανασίαkata charin athanasia), of the soul has also been widely accepted among Eastern Orthodox theologians, by returning to the views of the late 2nd century, where immortality was still considered as a gift granted with the value of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The Seventh-day Adventist Church has held to conditional immortality since the mid-19th century.

In psychology, the psyche is the totality of the human mind, conscious and unconscious. Psychology is the scientific or objective study of the psyche. The word has a long history of use in psychology and philosophy, dating back to ancient times, and represents one of the fundamental concepts for understanding human nature from a scientific point of view. The English word soul is sometimes used synonymously, especially in older texts.

Spirit

The spirit (Hebrew ruach, Greek πνεῦμαpneuma, which can also mean “breath”) is likewise an immaterial component. It is often used interchangeably with “soul”, psyche, although trichotomists believe that the spirit is distinct from the soul.

“When Paul speaks of the pneuma of man he does not mean some higher principle within him or some special intellectual or spiritual faculty of his, but simply his self, and the only questions is whether the self is regarded in some particular aspect when it is called pneuma. In the first place, it apparently is regarded in the same way as when it is called psyche – viz. as the self that lives in man’s attitude, in the orientation of his will.”

Charles Taylor has argued in Sources of the Self: Making of Modern Identity that the attempt to reduce spirit or soul to the “self” is an anachronistic project claiming historical precedence, when it reality it is a modern, Western, secular reading of the Scriptures.

Constitution or nature of the person

Christian theologians have historically differed over the issue of how many distinct components constitute the human being.

Two parts (Dichotomism)

In Christian theological anthropology, bipartite refers to the view that a human being is a composed of two distinct components, material and immaterial, body and soul. The two parts were created interdependent and in harmony, though corrupted through sin.

Alternative theological views of human composition include tripartite and unitary (or monistic) views.

Reformation theologian John Calvin is often quoted as being in support of a bipartite view. Calvin held that while the soul and the spirit are often used interchangeably in the Bible, there are also subtle differences when the two terms are used together.

Some have held that the soul and the spirit are interchangeable and the inner life is expressed in a form of literary parallelism. Such parallelism can be found elsewhere in Scripture, such as the Psalms and the Proverbs. Others have used chemical analogies.

R. C. Sproul holds that the body and the soul are two substances which are not in conflict. They are two natures or substances, divine and human, unite in one person. In contrast with various Greek philosophical views, the material body (and the soul) is not seen as inherently evil, but inherently good. The Christian doctrine of salvation therefore does not imply a redemption from the body, but a redemption of the body and the soul.

The most popular view, affirmed by a large number of lay faithful and theologians from many Christian traditions, is that the human being is formed of two components: material (body/flesh) and spiritual (soul/spirit). The soul or spirit departs from the body at death, and will be reunited with the body at the resurrection.

Three parts (Trichotomism)

A significant minority of theologians across the denominational and theological spectrum, in both the East and the West, have held that human beings are made up of three distinct components: body or flesh, soul, and spirit. This is known technically as trichotomism. The biblical texts typically used to support this position are 1 Thessalonians 5:23 and Hebrews 4:12.

One part (Monism)

Modern theologians increasingly hold to the view that the human being is an indissoluble unity. This is known as holism or monism. The body and soul are not considered separate components of a person, but rather as two facets of a united whole. It is argued that this more accurately represents Hebrew thought, whereas body-soul dualism is more characteristic of classical Greek Platonist and Cartesian thought. Monism is the official position of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, which adheres to the doctrine of “soul sleep”. Monism also appears to be more consistent with certain physicalist interpretations of modern neuroscience, which has indicated that the so-called “higher functions” of the mind are dependent upon or emergent from brain structure, not the independent workings of an immaterial soul as was previously thought.

An influential exponent of this view was liberal theologian Rudolf Bultmann. Oscar Cullmann was influential in popularizing it.

Origin of humanity

The Bible teaches in the book of Genesis the humans were created by God. Some Christians believe that this must have involved a miraculous creative act, while others are comfortable with the idea that God worked through the evolutionary process.

God’s image in the human

The book of Genesis also teaches that human beings, male and female, were created in the image of God. The exact meaning of this has been debated throughout church history (see Image of God).

Origin/transmission of the soul

There are two opposing views about how the soul originates in each human being. Creationism teaches that God creates a “fresh” soul within each human embryo at or some time shortly after conception. Note: This is not to be confused with creationism as a view of the origins of life and the universe.

Traducianism, by contrast, teaches that the soul is inherited from the individual’s parents, along with his or her biological material.

In Christian theology, traducianism is a doctrine about the origin of the soul or synonymously, spirit, holding that this immaterial aspect is transmitted through natural generation along with the body, the material aspect of human beings. That is, an individual’s soul is derived from the souls of the individual’s parents. This implies that only the soul of Adam was created directly by God (with Eve’s substance, material and immaterial, being taken from out of Adam), in contrast with the idea of creationism of the soul, which holds that all souls are created directly by God.

Creationism is a doctrine held by some Christians that God creates a soul for each body that is generated. Alternative Christian views on the origin of souls are traducianism and also the idea of a pre-existence of the soul. The Scholastic philosophers held the theory of Creationism.

Creationism holds that the origin of the soul cannot be by spiritual generation from the souls of parents (as the German theologian Jakob Frohschammer (1821-1893) maintained) because human souls, being essentially and integrally simple and indivisible, can give forth no spiritual germs or reproductive elements. The creation of the soul by the First Cause, when second causes have posited the pertinent conditions, falls within the order of nature; it is a so-called “law of nature”, not an interference therewith.

As regards the time when the individual soul is created, philosophical speculation varies. The traditional philosophy of the Roman Catholic Church holds that the rational soul is created at the moment when it is infused into the new organism. Thomas Aquinas, following Aristotle’s embryology, taught that rational soul is created when the antecedent principles of life have rendered the foetus an appropriate organism for rational life, though some time is required after birth before the sensory organs are sufficiently developed to assist in the functions of intelligence. On the other hand, most neo-Scholastics hold that the rational soul is created and infused into the incipient human being at the moment of conception.

Human nature

Christian theology traditionally teaches the holiness of human nature. Pelagius taught that human nature is not so corrupt that we cannot overcome sin. Arminians believe that our nature is corrupt, but that free will can still operate. Saint Augustine believed that all humans are born into the sin and guilt of Adam, and are powerless to do good without grace. During the Protestant Reformation, John Calvin developed the doctrine of total depravity. The Catholic Church teaches that Adam and Eve were constituted in “original holiness and justice”, but the Fall deprived them of this natural state by original sin.

Death and afterlife

Christian anthropology has implications for beliefs about death and the afterlife. The Christian church has traditionally taught that the soul of each individual separates from the body at death, to be reunited at the resurrection. This is closely related to the doctrine of the immortality of the soul. For example, the Westminster Confession (chapter XXXII) states:

“The bodies of men, after death, return to dust, and see corruption: but their souls, which neither die nor sleep, having an immortal subsistence, immediately return to God who gave them”

Intermediate state

The question then arises: where exactly does the disembodied soul “go” at death? Theologians refer to this subject as the intermediate state. The Old Testament speaks of a place called sheol where the spirits of the dead reside. In the New Testament, hades, the classical Greek realm of the dead, takes the place of sheol. In particular, Jesus teaches in Luke 16:19–31 (Lazarus and Dives) that hades consists of two separate “sections”, one for the righteous and one for the unrighteous. His teaching is consistent with intertestamental Jewish thought on the subject.

Fully developed Christian theology goes a step further; on the basis of such texts as Luke 23:43 and Philippians 1:23, it has traditionally been taught that the souls of the dead are received immediately either into heaven or hell, where they will experience a foretaste of their eternal destiny prior to the resurrection. (Roman Catholicism teaches a third possible location, Purgatory, though this is denied by Protestants and Eastern Orthodox.)

“the souls of the righteous, being then made perfect in holiness, are received into the highest heavens, where they behold the face of God, in light and glory, waiting for the full redemption of their bodies. And the souls of the wicked are cast into hell, where they remain in torments and utter darkness, reserved to the judgment of the great day.” (Westminster Confession)

Some Christian groups which stress a monistic anthropology deny that the soul can exist consciously apart from the body. For example, the Seventh-day Adventist Church teaches that the intermediate state is an unconscious sleep; this teaching is informally known as “soul sleep”.

Final state

In Christian belief, both the righteous and the unrighteous will be resurrected at the last judgment. The righteous will receive incorruptible, immortal bodies (1 Corinthians 15), while the unrighteous will be sent to the “Lake of Fire” or “Gehenna”. Traditionally, Christians have believed that hell will be a place of eternal physical and psychological punishment. In the last two centuries, annihilationism and universalism have become more popular.

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